Phones, Fire, and Landlines

"We interrupt this program"....text, found on a TV screen, says that you are seeing this message as part of the emergency broadcast system.

Dear Smartphone interrupts this column to provide an announcement from the Emergency Preparedness System….

In Northern California, many households keep two phones: there is the regular cell-phone, and then a separate landline for emergencies. The landline is expected to be the backup when cell towers go down. It is the lifeline to receive an call or reach ‘911’.

During the October, 2019 fires, these landlines often failed…alongside with the PG&E electrical service. It turns out that ‘POTS’, which stands for Plain Old Telephone Service; i.e., the landline connected to a phone jack, is not as reliable as it used to be. Here’s why:

Fiber Optics: Look Again

With the growth of the Internet, fiber optic lines have replaced many copper telephone cables. But, fiber optics don’t have the same ability as copper lines to maintain service indefinitely when there is a power failure Before the Internet, telephone companies routed calls with paired copper cable, a method that required almost no external power, except at the Central Switching Station.

Under everyday conditions, fiber optics are the backbone for calling and the Internet. They out-perform copper wire because of their lightening speed, capacity, and cost. However, fiber optics (and coaxial cable) depend on electricity to power the system. When there is a complete electricity shutdown the fiber optics fail, unless there is an extensive generator for electrical backup.

POTS (plain old phone service) NOT

Today, when households keep a landline, they expect to get the reliability and backup of ‘POTS’. But, it’s often not the case. Many ‘landlines’ now transmit over fiber optics instead of copper lines. According to a valuable survey done shortly after the 2017 fires in Northern California, 85% of those who subscribed to a landline did not know their POTS used fiber optics.

It gets worse, because many users with POTS service, have upgraded their phone receiver (the phone itself), not realizing that it also requires backup power. These wall mounted or desk phones plug into an electrical source. When the electricity cuts off, these phones can operate for up to eight hours if they have an internal battery. However, that assumes the battery is present, fresh, and charged. In the fore-mentioned survey, 28% of the respondents said they just expected the phones to work and only 4% had ordered an optional back-up battery.

Not a Wired Fix

The FCC and the California Public Utilities Commission are fully aware of these issues but there is not a single fix with the demise of copper wires. The problem is compounded because Central Switching Stations, once the bastion for safety and redundancy, often use fiber optics to link between Central Stations. This produces yet another vulnerable communications link during electrical power outages. WSJ reporter Sarah Krouse indicates that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote to wireless carriers in September about how they were preparing for fires and power shutdowns in California.

Apparently Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all replied detailing the types of backup power available at their sites and the equipment that could quickly be deployed there in the event of an outage. But, it didn’t work out that way for Northern California

‘Know” your Landline

The big picture is that the newest technology brings households a multitude of communication channels, but deny them confidence in a reliable system that operates during emergencies. In practical terms, redundancy counts, so having both a “landline” and a cell phone is clearly better than having just one option. Knowing whether the “landline” operates on fiber optics or copper cable is also useful. And, knowing that you need a spare battery (or generator) to backup the landline could make the difference between no-signal and safety. That said, it’s a complicated network to add to a California’s household brimming emergency prep kit.

Flashlight, App & Halloween

Should we carry a flashlight when the smartphone can light things up for us? Sometimes a redundant ‘Yes.’

This is a list of everyday activities, for example, a calculator, that we now perform with phone apps instead of with a separate device.
The Apps Take Over!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: We are getting ready for Trick ‘O Treat and have a small family disagreement. My kids (Sponge Bob and Princess) believe that the flashlight on our phones will be sufficient at night. I am old-school, raised in the U.K. and insist that we bring battery-operated flashlights (torches in U.K. speak). Your thoughts? Laurent, Berkeley

Dear Laurent: First and foremost, I hope that Sponge Bob and Princess have a happy and safe adventure. As you get ready for Halloween, it’s great to use this family time to talk with kids about phones.

There are several reasons why you should carry a separate flashlight this Halloween. It will illuminate a wider area, and the batteries will out-last those on a smartphone. But the important reason is ‘redundancy.”


As we come to rely more and more on apps to perform everyday functions (the image speaks loudly!) we need to stay acquainted with older, mechanical methods. Put another way, you want to have both old-fashioned flashlights and newer LED ones in your earthquake safety kit, along with a spare battery or solar charger for your phone. The need for redundancy is a vital lesson for digitally minded kids. It’s particularly important when the wifi network and/or cellular service are both down.


In researching this illuminating topic (!) I came across two more issues. First, beware if you need to download a flashlight app to an older phone. Apparently these apps, particularly on Android phones, can ask for up to 55 permissions to read the phone status, view Internet connections, and have full network access. So consider with your kids the privacy concerns, and speak up for digital security.

Second, it’s not clear that the flashlight app will work at night when you also need to take pictures. Both the flashlight and built-in camera flash need that pulse of light. Since you will want to to record the adventures of Sponge Bob and Princess, it’s best to also carry the torch.

Older Phones Work

This is a picture off older flipphones, blackbery phones, and early smartphones. The image is from 2017 and was taken by Chris Jackson, a photographer.
“Not dead yet.” photographer: Chris Jackson. Getty Images (2017)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: In the last post, you and the reader (Zack) seemed to yearn for the newest, latest phone. I have the opposite case. My husband has had the same phone for four years. He refuses to upgrade when I get a new one, even though the store is offering me a 2 for 1 deal for new phones. Is he wrong to want to stay put? Lacy, San Francisco.

Dear Lacy: It’s in the air this Fall : those stories about three hole picture taking and origami phones that fold and practically fly! It’s hard to resist them if you like to stay on top of new technology, and fuel the engines of Silicon Valley (and Korea). The replacement phone-cycle requires less money and commitment than the new car-cycle mentioned in the last post.

However, I see two reasons why your husband might be resistant to new phones even when there is no additional out-of-pocket expense. It is often time-consuming and onerous to switch from one phone model to another. It’s not like they come with instruction manuals! The new Apple phones lack a home button, so it will take swipes up and down to figure out what apps are opened and closed. The Android 10 also does away with the navigation buttons in favor of a gesture-based system. Until a user gets comfortable with these new features, they may make them error-prone and slow down their everyday communications. If you want your husband to get on board, you may need to show him how.

And, his reluctance may be one about consumerism at large. I found an interesting statistic (from 2017) that worldwide, the average global smartphone replacement cycle is only 21 months! Moreover, the rate is highest in emerging consumer markets. Some old phones end up in sock drawers. A few get handed-down. But, it’s reported that in the the US alone, 416,000 cellphones enter landfills or incinerators every day, where they release toxins into the air, water, and soil. And, add to the mix the old cords and adapters. There are environmental reasons why consumers hold on to phones longer, and seek less for the newest-latest-shiniest.

That said, it’s still more sustainable to recycle a phone every two years, versus a car. I am in favor of moving-on, and no user should be left fully behind.